Russell Peters on going hard with four galas at this year’s Just for Laughs

“Now that I think about it, that’s a lot of f*ckin’ work.”

“Hi Taylor, this is a Russell Peters … impressionist.”

‘Oh good. He’s a goofball in real life, too,’ I thought. Par for the course when it comes to comedians? Not always. Some, perhaps more than some, can be cranky. Others take themselves too seriously. This wasn’t the case when I called Russell Peters to ask him about his upcoming Just for Laughs gala hosting duties. It never felt like I was speaking with arguably the most famous and successful comic this country ever produced. Rather, it felt like I was chatting with an old friend from college.

I remember watching Peters’ television specials and Just for Laughs appearances back in the late ’90s and it’s hard to convey just how radically different he was from literally everyone else coming out of Canada’s comedy scene at the time. It wasn’t just that he was of Indian descent (though, admittedly, that novelty had a long shelf life in this country back then), but rather it felt like he had moved the ball forward by a considerable distance in terms of the evolution of comedy in Canada. It felt like the era of Jim Carrey and Jerry Seinfeld impersonators came to an end with Peters’ ascension back then, and that Canadian comics were finally free to be themselves.

It’s no surprise that it would take the kid of immigrants to show us that.

The other thing to remember about Russell Peters is that he personally represents another important evolutionary step, one that extends far beyond our borders. Back in 2004 or 2005, people began uploading Peters’ comedy to a then new video-sharing website called YouTube and not only launched him into the stratosphere of global fame, but further demonstrated a titanic shift in how comedians would get their product to the masses. Professional comedy, previously a waiting game of limited opportunities, was now democratized, available on demand to a global audience, and without any of the middling middle men who once built careers as bookers and talent scouts. Though Peters himself wasn’t responsible for this revolution, he may very well have been the first person to benefit from it.

Peters, who has graced the Just for Laughs stage many times since the mid-1990s, will host a blockbuster four galas over two nights this year, featuring 32 comedians. He seemed to be looking forward to it, but also potentially caught off guard, when I asked him about it in a recent interview.

“Now that I think about it, that’s a lot of fuckin’ work.”

Taylor C. Noakes: How important was Just for Laughs to you in developing your career?

Russell Peters: Well, I started in ’89, in Toronto, and did my first appearance at Just for Laughs in ’96. Back then, people were still giving away deals at the festival [Author’s note: …meaning comedians could still get a TV development deal, often for a sitcom, after a successful festival appearance], and that was the goal at the time. But in 1996 I was only seven years into my career, so A) I don’t deserve a deal, and B) I’m thinking I’m all about trying to get the deal. There were still some lucrative deals to be had, but by the time I started doing the festival, that was coming to an end. I did my first show in 1996, my first Just for Laughs television appearance in 1998, and my first gala in 2000. Since then I think I’ve done the festival 12 or 13 times.

TN: I heard you met George Carlin early in your career. What was that like, and did he give you any advice?

Russell Peters: Yeah. I met Carlin in ’92 in Toronto. It was the night the Blue Jays won the World Series and everybody was partying up and down Yonge Street. And I was just a punk ass kid. I was partying and I see this old guy with a beard and a grey-haired ponytail walking towards me. And just to be a smart-ass, I yell to my friend, “That guy looks like George Carlin,” so then I say, ‘How’s it going George’ and he says, “How’s it going kid?’ And I was like, “What the fuck, that guy was actually George Carlin?!”

So I ran after him and I walked him back to the hotel and I was grovelling the whole way. And then I asked him for some advice and he told me to get on stage as much as possible, that it didn’t matter where or for how long it is, that it doesn’t matter whether you kill or bomb, just that the more stage time you get, the better you get. At the end of it I said, “Hey, maybe we’ll get a chance to work together one day,” and he said, “You never know kid, it’s a crazy business.”

About 10 months before he died in 2008, I got a chance to work with him in L.A. at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. They knew I was a big Carlin fan and he was coming in to work on a new set and I begged them to let me host. And then I started quivering, and I started to wind up with tears when I was introducing, because he meant so much to me.

TN: Who or what inspired you to become a comedian? And at what point did you first think that you could make it a career?

Russell Peters: I was always a fan of comedy. I used to listen to it, back in the ’70s, and I was listening to it even before I started watching it. I was either in Grade 5 or 6 and someone brought in a .45 record of Cheech and Chong’s Sister Mary Elephantand I remember crying-laughing listening to it, and I was like, “How good do you have to be to write a sketch that is so funny that it sounds funny?” I remember begging the person to let me borrow it so I could listen to it more at home. And they did. And I remember that was one of my earliest memories of like, “I really like this kind of thing.” So that’s what started the fire. And then in 1986, I saw Eddie Murphy in concert in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. That was the Raw tour, but at the time was called Pieces of My Mind. And then three years later, I started doing standup, not realizing that all these little seeds had been planted my whole life.

Russell Peters on going hard with four galas at this year’s Just for Laughs

TN: Where was your first show?

Russell Peters: It was at Yonge and Eglinton, the Uptown Club, what used to be Yuk Yuk’s Uptown Club. I was terrible. I was fuckin’ awful.

TN: Why do you think you were so bad?

Russell Peters: It’s not that I think I was bad, I know I was bad. It’s a factual statement, not a matter of opinion. But my brain was like, ‘If you can get a couple of giggles with this shitty stuff, imagine if you got good at it, how many laughs you’d get?’ That’s how my brain processed it, thank goodness.

TN: How long did it take to hit your stride, to get comfortable?

Russell Peters: Well, I don’t think you ever really get to that. I think there’s a 10-year incubation period in comedy, and you need to be doing at least 10 years to figure out what your voice is and what direction you want to go. And for me it was about 10 years in the late-1990s, when I started making appearances at Just for Laughs.

TN: What was the Canadian comedy scene like when you started out?

Russell Peters: White. Extremely white. And not even crossover white, like Great Canadian White. And all the older comics out there were bitter as shit. They were like, “You don’t know what hot’s like, kid — we used to do cocaine on private airplanes.” You gotta understand, I’m a kid coming from Brampton. I don’t know about cocaine, I don’t know about private planes. I didn’t know about people having cars with air conditioning. For me, back then, anything other than working at Wendy’s or Burger King was a big deal.

TN: Why do you think they were so bitter?

Russell Peters: Because there was a boom in the ’80s, and by 1989, the bubble had burst. The market was oversaturated. So by the ’90s, it was like a post-apocalyptic comedy, so to speak. It was literally the perfect time to start doing comedy because nobody cared about it anymore. Every comic out there had their own TV show or TV special, you could see comedians every night, and 9 times out of 10, they weren’t very good.

TN: Have there been any major changes or shifts in themes, tone or voice in your set over the course of your career? Has it been more or less stable or have there been major changes that you’ve implemented?

Russell Peters: You’ve got to change with the times and the world around you. So, you know, there’s things I said in the early part of my career that I would never even consider saying again. Language changes, tone changes. As you get older, your experience changes. I started at 19, now I’m 53. I’m not the same guy I was when I was 19, I’m not even the same guy I was when I was 49. You keep changing, you evolve, and if your set doesn’t evolve with you, you’re sitting there spinning around for the rest of your life.

TN: Then the other side of that question: Is there any material that’s stayed with you, that still gets a laugh, that’s been consistent all these years?

Russell Peters: No. Once I record something, it’s dead. It’s like sperm — once it hits the air, it’s dead. ■

The RP4 (Russell Peters Just for Laughs galas) take place at Place des Arts’s Théâtre Maisonneuve on July 26 and 27, 7 and 9:45 p.m. nightly, $47.08–$117.08 (four price points)

This article was originally published in the July 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Comedy section.